Book Review

I'm not an academic poet, nor part of the traditional poetry " scene" … I definitely identify as a socially engaged writer, and people who can appreciate that perspective respond more positively to my poetry. It's not everyone's cup of tea, and that's okay.
                            -Laura Hershey

The passing away of Laura Hershey in November of 2010, in some respects, signals the end of an era for poets with disability. Increasingly, poets with disabilities are skittish about being labeled "identity poets" and in the perennial seesaw between literature as social advocacy and "art for arts sake" want to be seen as members of the latter camp. Laura, however, placed herself squarely in the first. As a poet whose work was an outgrowth of her involvement in the Disability Rights Movement, Hershey did not leave a great body of writing behind her. That's why the appearance of Spark Before Dark (Finishing Line Press, 2011), published through the efforts of her long-time friend and partner Robin Stephens, is an important one. It distills the essentials of Hershey's work in a few selected poems, making her contribution to the field of disability poetry, easily visible.

Though it may seem commonplace now, putting one's disabled body out in a poem until recently was risky business. As Hershey says in "Telling":

You will park yourself forever
on the outside, your differentness once
and all revealed, dangerous.
The names you give yourself
will become epithets.

Your happiness will be called
bravery, denial.
Your sadness will justify their pity.

As Hershey well saw, poems that elicited either pity or congratulations for bravery are simply ways in which a person with disability was held in their place as "the other." Her belief, though, was that her life was a life worth knowing about. So her poems describing the ordinary of her life are not so ordinary. In "Morning" she has the reader listening with her for the opening of the door, hoping that her care person has not been delayed so that she will be able to get out of bed. In "Working Together" she describes the daily ritual of her getting ready for the day:

Her job: apply soap
hot spray
My job: how hot
say stop

Poems such as "Beach" take what would be an ordinary experience for most people (and probably result in a banal poem) and give the fresh perspective of a wheelchair user

Bumpy ride
                   square chair nylon PVC
                   compared to my custom-fit power
                   No electronics but
big balloon
                   tires made to ride over
rutted sand
                   past blanket-claimed patches of
                   studded bucket-pocked land
by four hands
                   strong women pushing

In describing her experience, Hershey underscores the value that her poetry, and that of other writers with disabilities, have in providing images that counter stereotypes. Her amused observation of how to back up in time to avoid the "salty slobber" of an incoming wave that licks at her like a friendly dog dispels any impulse a reader might have had to see her as a pretense for pity.

In frequently cited lines from her poem "Dramatic Monologue in the Speaker's Own Voice" Vassar Miller, one of the first writers with cerebral palsy to make a career of poetry, says in one of the few lines in which she refers to her physical condition:

I'm either a monster
in search of a horror movie to be in,
or else I'm a brain floating within a body.

Miller wrote through most of the second half of the twentieth century a time when the perception of a person with CP as somehow freakish was still quite real and few risked encouraging that perception by writing about their bodies. Laura Hershey, coming a generation later was one of the first to confront the image of the monster head on. In "Monster Body" she writes:

I mock the human form.

My back, shell-sharp curve, my thin wrist bone
Limbs that do not twitch beyond the digits
Illustrate terror, the randomness of damage

Right lung so different from the left
Thrust forward, fuller-breathed
Its more delicate mate shrunken
Adjusting to a smaller, collapsing cage

Brief breaths, bent bones
Muscles weak as water, still as sleeping stars
Monster mine, monster body
One I would not trade

In the final stanza that almost splits in alliterative caesura then reunites in the final line, Hershey not only describes her body and claims it with the line "one I would not trade," she rejects the idea that she needs to be cured or fixed. This runs directly counter to the medical model of disability that most people still hold. As she puts it in "Biopsy Scar":

I was territory
others thought they fought to save…

their dreaded foe
was my native land.

The image of the body with disability as a foreign land is one that is gaining momentum in disability poetry and illustrates the sort of metaphor that disability poetry contributes to poetic dialogue as whole. The most famous example of disability as foreign country is Neil Marcus' celebrated "Disabled Country," but Marcus poem posits a utopian society in which disability is the new norm. What Hershey does is introduce the image of her body as a native country which is under attack because it is seen as the enemy. Hershey's imagery has been carried forward by writers like Sheila Black in "What You Mourn" who also uses the image to counter the views of the medical establishment, and, most recently, by Jim Ferris in his caustically political "Slouching Towards Guantanamo."

For a slim volume Hershey's poems present readers with a surprising number of situations: camping in Muir woods, being ignore by staff at LAX, lying in bed next to her lover after an argument, meditating at a fishing pier. Whether she explicitly mentions her disability in a poem or not, knowledge that she is viewing the world through a slightly different lens toggle the reader between their accustomed experience and something new.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Spark Before Dark recalls "one adolescent Halloween." Having reached the age when she was old enough to be out after dark but almost too old to go out for candy, this night when she could feel a sense of comradeship with others in their bizarre costumes. The "monster body" that usually set her apart from others, made her feel an integral part of this macabre holiday. She fabricated a "carefully constructed joke" in which she applied outlandish amounts of makeup, hairspray and other accoutrements to give her the appear of a "classy whore." The poem ends:

My mother racked the last dish, shut
the dishwasher door, looked up
to see me looking at her, laughing
at myself and waiting.
As she stood, her eyes widened, pink lips parted.
Not amused, not amazed, she came and leaned
upon my wheelchair armrest, gazed
at my painted face,
touched a stiffened wisp of hair, spoke
flattering, fun-spoiling words:
"You look so nice!"

Words spoken by her mother out of a misguided attempt to protect, fall especially hard.

The $12 price tag may seem a lot for a book with only 30 pages, but Spark Before Dark is well worth the price. It is the perfect introduction for those new to disability poetry. It can be easily read in one setting and is accessible even to the teenage reader, but contains the seeds for many of the important ideas and images of disability that are dealt with in the more sophisticated poetry of a Sheila Black, Laurie Clements Lambeth or Stephen Kuusisto. It is also an important piece of disability poetry history. As often as not today, poets have difficulty explaining why they write and usually end up with some vague explanation that pivots around the words "self-expression." When asked why anyone one would want to read their work, they are hard put to come up with an explanation. Laura Hershey had no such dilemma. Her mission was clear. As she put it:

Someone, somewhere
will hear my story and decide to fight,
to live and refuse compromise.
Someone else will tell
her own story,
risking everything.